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Fruitvale Station – interview with the film’s director Ryan Coogler



The multiple award winning film Fruitvale Station tells the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Oakland, California resident, and the harrowing events that befell him on the night of New Year’s Eve  2008.  Here we speak to the film’s first time director Ryan Coogler.


What originally inspired you to make this film?
I was originally inspired to make this film by the event itself, as well as the aftermath. I was in the Bay Area, on Christmas break from film school when it happened. I heard that someone had been shot at the BART station, and that he passed away the next morning. On New Year’s Day I saw the footage, and I was deeply affected by it. Looking at the footage, I realized that Oscar could have been me…we were the same age, his friends looked like my friends, and I was devastated that this could happen in the Bay Area. During the trial I saw how the situation became politicized: depending on which side of the political fence people stood on, Oscar was either cast as a saint who had never done anything wrong in his life, or he was painted as a monster who got what he deserved that night. I felt that in that process, Oscar’s humanity was lost. When anyone’s life is lost, the true nature of the tragedy lies in who they were to the people that knew him or her the best. The footage, the trail, and the aftermath filled me with a great sense of helplessness. Many people in the Bay Area community participated in protests, others took parts in rallies and marches. There were also many riots stemming from desperation. I wanted to do something to make a difference, and I thought that if I could bring the story to life through art, and give audiences the chance to spend time with a character like Oscar, it could maybe lower the chances of an incident like this happening again.

How, and at what point, did Forest Whitaker come on board?
Ryan-Coogler-Forest-Whitaker-at-Cannes-Film-Festival-052513When I was in my last semester of film school, in January of 2011, I got word that Forest’s production company, Significant Productions, had been looking for young filmmakers to mentor and become creatively involved with, and that my name had come up in their search for filmmakers.  I went over to their office and met with Nina Yang, the head of production. Nina was great. She told me about the company’s mission statement and that she would love to read some of the stuff that I had written. I showed her a few of the projects that I had been working on, and after looking at them she decided that she would like to get me in the room with Forest.
I met Forest a few weeks later and was really encouraged by his humility and his passion for filmmaking and social issues. He was interested in hearing what type of projects I wanted to work on once I got out of school and I pitched him a few that I had been developing. Finally, I told him about FRUITVALE STATION and explained to him that it was the project closest to my heart. I talked about how I would structure the film, and about how I was already in touch with the lawyers in charge of the civil case through a friend who was formally a law student at USC and now worked on the case back in the Bay Area. Forest said that he would like to help me make the film immediately after the pitch, and shook my hand, and walked out of the room. I was so excited that I went home and started working on the outline immediately.

How long did it take to develop the film and what obstacles, if any, did you run into?
I started outlining and getting public record documents from my friend Ephraim Walker, who worked with John Burris, the family’s civil attorney on the case around the same time that I pitched the project to Forest. After Significant green lit the project, I then went to meet with the family, and pitch them on allowing Significant to have the rights to Oscar’s story. It involved a lot of trust on their behalf and I had to reassure them that I wouldn’t sensationalize the story in any way. I just really wanted the story to be told from the perspective of someone the same age and demographic as Oscar, and from the Bay Area. This took time. I showed them my short films, and told them about myself, and about why I thought that the story should be told through the lens of independent cinema. Eventually they agreed to move forward with the project.
FVS_PoliceGraspAnother challenge was making the film with a modest budget while still wanting to stay true to certain artistic convictions. We wanted to shoot in the Bay Area. We wanted to shoot on super 16mm film. These things all involved being open to creative solutions and going at an accelerated pace. We shot the film in twenty days, and didn’t have any pickups involving talent. The rapid fire schedule certainly didn’t stop after production. We shot in July 2012 and premiered at Sundance six months later. The schedule was an extremely challenging component, and put a lot of strain on everyone involved.
One of the biggest challenges stemmed from wanting to shoot in some of the real locations, mainly BART. There was a lot of worry about how we would get the BART station and train scenes shot, and because it is such a painful event for the company and the community, many doubted that they would cooperate. But we approached them, and found that they were open to meeting with us about the film. I met with them and told them what the project would be about, and why we wanted to shoot on BART premises. After hearing the pitch, they decided to cooperate with our production.

You were selected to bring the film’s screenplay to the 2012 Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab. What effect did that experience have on you as a filmmaker and on how the project turned out?
Getting selected into the Sundance Labs was absolutely essential in making the film what it came out to be. So many positive elements that came together for the film were as a direct result of support received from The Sundance Institute and the hard work of the Feature Film Program staff. Michelle Satter, Ilyse McKimmie and their team provided much needed support much for me and the film throughout all the stages of the filmmaking process. In the 2012 Screenwriting Lab, I was able to take a week and focus on the script, while surrounded by a community of extremely talented artists who want to see everyone succeed in telling the story they want to tell. They provided me with the tools I needed to make a stronger script, and their support continued throughout prep, production and post. They provided us with financial grants, crewing advice, reading further drafts of the script, and watched cuts of the film as it progressed. They also provided introductions to people in the industry, like Craig Kestel who would later become my agent and play a pivotal role in helping secure the cast for the film.

Tell us a little about the process of casting the film.
Before writing the script, I knew that the lead would have to be able to carry the entire film. He would need to possess a great range and charisma, and it would be helpful if he had a lot of experience due to the rapid shooting schedule we were in for. I also wanted to have someone who resembled Oscar. There are pictures of him everywhere in the Bay Area and on the internet, and we needed someone with a great smile and eyes that could draw the viewer in, like Oscar’s. And it would help if the actor was around the same age as him.
FVS_Mum&OscarGrant_sadIn my mind, there was only one person who fit all of these requirements. I had Michael B. Jordan in mind before I had even written the script, and I was excited about the opportunity to really showcase his work in a lead role. We reached out to him after the labs and he took a meeting with me before reading the script, which I thought was really cool. We really hit it off in the meeting and I came away knowing that he was perfect for the role. I was thankful that he read the script later and wanted to do the project.
I knew we needed someone amazing for the role of Wanda, as she was such an important force in Oscar’s life and her character in the script would need to show a great deal of range. After reading the script, my agent Craig Kestel decided that we should reach out to Octavia, who had just won an Oscar for THE HELP. I knew she would be perfect for us, but I figured that she would never do it. He encouraged me that she would consider it, and we reached out with the script, and a few days later, she committed. Working with her was like a dream come true to everyone involved. She brought such professionalism, and a nurturing quality to the set, but also a great youthful energy and sense of humor. There is no one like her.
FVS_OscarGrant&GirlfriendMelonie Diaz for the role of Sophina came about through several recommendations, including from members of the Sundance Lab staff. I had seen her work before and really responded to it. We reached out to her and gave her the script, but because she was in New York and I was here in California, we had to have our initial meetings over the phone. After talking to her over Skype we offered her the role, and she came with a tremendous energy and work ethic. We were so grateful to have her; she and Mike had an amazing chemistry together.
The San Francisco Film Society, who were also amazingly supportive with financial grants and Bay Area film community connections, supported us with their Off The Page program. They flew both Michael and Melonie out to the Bay Area before our shoot, and put them up in the Bay Area for three days. While they were here we were able to workshop the script on SFFS property. I was also able to take them to meet Sophina and Tatiana, as well as take them to spend time in Oscar’s old neighborhood.
For the roles of Oscar’s friends, I was able to cast several of my friends that I had grown up with who were the same age as Oscar and his friends. Michael got along with them all really well, and they were able to lean on each other for support with what was, for many of them, their first time working on a feature film. Because most of them grew up with each other, their camaraderie came across onscreen and felt like true, lifelong friendships.

The story of Oscar Grant was a nationwide media sensation that fueled a great deal of controversy and news coverage. What made you decide to make this a narrative film, rather than a documentary?
FVS_babyTalkI decided to make a narrative feature about these events for several reasons. For one, I wanted to tell this story sooner than later, because events like this keep happening. One of the advantages to fiction filmmaking versus non-fiction filmmaking is that a fiction project can usually be completed faster. My favorite documentaries all took several years to make. Another reason was the difference in perspective in character driven fiction films versus documentary films. I personally believe that narrative filmmaking, when done right, can get you closer to a character than a documentary can.  In this story, I wanted the audience to be as close to Oscar as possible, without the barrier of the character knowing that he is being filmed, which is a barrier that is difficult to break in documentary filmmaking – especially with a limited schedule.

At the time of Oscar’s shooting, there were an overwhelming amount of witnesses who shared cell phone videos of the incident online. What role do you think this found footage played in the profile of the case, and how useful was it to you in making your film?
The footage played a key role in this case, because if it had happened ten years earlier, when people didn’t have the type of technology that they did in 2009 that enabled them to record video instantly, Oscar’s death wouldn’t have had the impact that it did. It would have been people giving verbal accounts of what happened, as opposed to documenting it with video evidence. The footage makes everyone who watches it a witness to what happened, and it is ultimately what made the case different from other officer-involved shootings.
The footage was very useful in terms of blocking the scene and working out the individual beats. But it also made for an added level of emotional difficulty in making the film. I cannot count how many times I have seen Oscar get shot, over and over again, from different angles, and each time you see something like that, it’s like it takes a piece of you.
But more so than anything, the role of cell phones and video cameras in the case inspired us to explore the use of cell phones throughout the film. It made us think about how we use them. Though it was four years ago, Oscar connected with his loved ones often through his cell phone, even on the last day of his life.

Was there a particularly difficult element or scene of the film to write and shoot?
Because we were dealing with such a short schedule, every scene we shot had its own inherent difficulties. I think that it’s like that whenever you’re making a film, but I think the most difficult scene to shoot was the scene on the Fruitvale BART platform. BART was extremely cooperative with us but they couldn’t let us shoot during their hours of operation. We could only have access to the platform and train between 1:15am and 5:15am.
FVS_OscarpleadsDue to that, we had to shoot the scene over three four-hour days. This was a challenge because the scene is our most involved, and included several elements: stunts, several extras, a firearm, and most importantly highly intense emotional beats. But our cast and crew really rose to the challenge. Before every one of those shooting days, everyone involved, from the film crew, to the cast, to the extras, to the BART employees, would come together in a moment of silence before we began filming on the location where Oscar was shot. And though we had limited time, everyone brought a focus and supportive energy to our short days at that location.

Aside from learning the story of his shooting and tragic death, what else do you want this film to teach audiences about Oscar Grant?
I want audiences to know that he was a real person. He was a person with real struggles and personal conflicts, but also with real hopes, and real dreams, and goals. And his life mattered deeply to the people that he loved the most. I hope that the film gives the audience a proximity to characters like Oscar that reading a newspaper headline can’t.

FRUITVALE title Orange on Black

This award-winning film hits UK cinemas from 6th June 2014
read the synopsis and watch the trailer here
see the full cast list here
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